Federal Government Internship and Job Search Guide

The job and internship search for federal government roles is different than a search in the private and nonprofit sectors. This guide includes:

It is not intended to serve as a substitute for working with an adviser to get individualized advice and create a customized plan. To do this, make an appointment in Handshake.

Top 10 Tips for Federal Job/Internship Searches

  1. Federal application timelines vary widely.  Make sure to check specific programs, opportunities and agencies for deadlines. 
  2. Be patient. The search and application process may last from 6-18 months. A security clearance may take an additional 3-6 months depending on the level of clearance required. Applications will be reviewed by a human resources (HR) specialist prior to being referred to a hiring manager. You can contact the contact person listed on the job announcement to ask for an update on the process. 
  3. Create a profile on USAJobs, the official hiring site for federal opportunities, and review the Pathways Program, which is geared toward students and recent graduates for opportunities within various federal agencies. 
  4. Sign up for agency mailing lists. While most positions can be found on USAJobs, some positions may only be posted on agency sites. Positions are typically posted for two weeks, so it is important to subscribe to agency mailing lists for job announcements.
  5. Research salary and benefits. Many salaries for government roles are competitive with private and nonprofit sector roles. Government roles also offer great benefits, professional development and educational opportunities.
  6. Include keywords in your application materials. The government agencies use an applicant tracking system (ATS) to screen applicants due to the high volume of applications. The ATS scans words within your resume and compares it to the language in the job posting. Look to see what key skills and qualifications are in the job description, and incorporate them into your resume. 
  7. Follow federal resume format guidelines. Federal resumes are longer and more detailed than traditional resumes and should be between 2-5 pages.
  8. Federal roles require applicants to list former supervisors' names and contact information on the resume as references. Contact previous supervisors prior to listing them on your resume.
  9. Prepare for the interview. Hiring managers are required to ask all applicants the same questions in the same order. Many of these questions are about your previous experiences and how they align with the role you are applying to. Review the Interview Guide to learn how to best describe your professional and academic experiences during the interview using the STAR method, and schedule an appointment with an adviser to practice.
  10. Use your network. Networking is an important component for any job or internship search. Conversations with alumni and other professionals working in the federal government can help you learn about their career paths, get inside knowledge and provide ideas and advice on your next career opportunity. You can refer to our Networking Guide for helpful tips on building professional connections, and read profiles of alumni working in government and public service on the Princeton Career Compass site.

Federal Resume Format and Sample

A federal resume is different from a resume you would submit for a job or internship in the private sector firm or a nonprofit. Federal resumes are longer and follow a specific format. Use this federal resume sample and tips to help you when you put your federal resume together.

Federal Job Search & Resume FAQs

Where else are federal opportunities posted?

Many agencies will post opportunities on USAJobs, but not all do. A notable example of this are positions within intelligence agencies. 

Most agency sites have email lists that you can join to get alerts about job openings. They will usually be found on the agency’s jobs or careers page.

Is it better to upload a resume or to use the resume builder when applying through USAJobs?

The resume builder is recommended because it automatically puts the resume into a federal resume format, and it is easy for the ATS (applicant tracking system) to understand. Additionally, human resources (HR) specialists are familiar with the resume builder format, which makes it easier for them to read and assess your resume

How long are positions posted on USAJobs?

Most opportunities are open for two weeks. It is important to follow opportunities of interest as not to miss the deadline. Please refer to Application Timelines for Popular Federal Programs for more information on hiring timelines

Are resumes scanned for keywords by an automated system?

HR specialists do look at resumes, however some agencies also use an automated system to review applications. It is important to tailor your resume to each individual job announcement and to make it scannable. 

For the agencies that do use an automated system, the resume review process has two parts:

  • An automated application review process to include all the required areas of the applicant’s eligibility and qualifications for the job. 
  • HR specialists review resumes to determine if applicants are qualified or unqualified for the role. They will confirm that skills required in the job announcement are reflected in the resume.

Although USAJobs is the central hub for most federal applications, resumes are screened by individual agency staff.

How important is my resume in the grand scheme of my entire application?

The resume is very important in the application process. It is generally the first part of the application to be screened. Please refer to the resume tips and sample for more information on federal resumes

What is a security clearance and how do I get one?

All agencies require a background check as part of the hiring process, and some roles require a security clearance. A security clearance allows individuals employed by the federal government access to classified information. 

For roles requiring a security clearance, there is an extensive background check process. It is important to incorporate the security clearance process into your overall application timeline as it can take months to receive the clearance. There are three steps to the security clearance process once you receive a conditional offer:

  1. A background check of your criminal and credit histories. This includes a review of law enforcement records, fingerprint checks, verification of education, past employment and verification of citizenship. 
  2. The agency will send you the Standard Form 86 to complete and return. It is better to be honest than to have a perfect record when answering questions on this form. Misinformation will remove you from consideration for the job.
  3. The agency investigates and reviews the information gathered, and decides whether to grant a clearance (Confidential, Secret, Top Secret). Most background investigations go through one agency, the Office of Personnel Management, but the hiring agency makes the final decision about the job offer and granting clearances.

Hiring Timelines and Popular Programs

A job and internship search in the federal government can take longer than a search in the nonprofit or private sector. The federal government hires across a variety of skills areas and industries, and receives applications across its agencies.

Full-time federal job searches can take from two months to a year depending on the agency and the level of security clearance required for the role. 

Many agencies hiring for summer interns post openings between August and March, though this may vary slightly so check agencies that you might be interested in and prepare a USAJobs profile and a draft of your resume in advance. Most postings are open for around two weeks.

Popular internship and job programs

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) - internship and job opportunities

The CIA offers full-time positions and paid internships. The CIA does not typically post on USAJobs, instead posting internship and job openings on their website. A full-time job search with the CIA can take two months to a year. If you are interested in an internship, you can apply at any time, however, you should apply a year in advance as the process — including getting a security clearance — can take an extensive amount of time.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) - internship and job opportunities

The FBI hires special agents from diverse backgrounds and skill sets. The FBI hires for roles throughout the year with opportunities available on their website and USAJobs. The FBI has a multi-part application process including the application, background check, meet and greet, interviews and physical fitness tests. Students with computer engineering or information systems experience are in high demand for these roles

U.S. Department of State: Student Internship Program - internship opportunities

The Student Internship Program places students at consulates and U.S. embassies across the world for the summer. You may plan events, write policy memos and papers and/or interact with foreign officials. One of the many benefits of this opportunity is that you will receive a security clearance as an intern, which can help when finding a full-time job in the federal government in the future.

This internship program has one of the earliest deadlines with applications opening in early September and closing in mid-September due to the amount of time needed for coordination with overseas entities and for security clearances. 

If you would rather do an internship in the United States, the State Department also hires interns for different roles through the Pathways Internship Program. These deadlines vary, but are only open for a short amount of time.

U.S. Department of State: Foreign Service Officer - job opportunities

The State Department hires foreign service officer to serve in diplomatic roles. Diplomats help to communicate and advance U.S. foreign policy.

The State Department offers five potential career tracks and requires applicants to select the career track when applying. You first must choose a career track that is the best fit for you, and then must sign-up to take the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT). The exam is offered in February, June and October. The test is the first step in the application process followed by an intensive interview process.

Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) - internship opportunities

The VSFS offers remote work opportunities for more than 40 federal agencies. Projects can range from supporting counterterrorism to domestic policy.

Applications are typically open from July 1-31 and the internships take place from September through December.

Princeton Resources and External Sites